How do we help students become more resilient writers?

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this idea of resilience in learning and writing recently. This is partly because I have started a big project – a single-authored book – and I am really struggling to find my voice and the words, and the frustration is knocking me back a bit. This is also partly based on my ups and downs with peer review on papers I have written in the last two years, and how I have made sense of the process of peer review, even when it has hurt, so that I can keep moving forward. And I have been wondering how we develop resilience in academia, and as writers and thinkers, and whether and how we can help or teach students to develop this too.
screenshot-2017-01-26-11-31-45

Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks, and to keep going without letting the setbacks overwhelm you; it is also defined as an elastic property of objects, that they can use to reform themselves into their proper shape when something has bent or pushed them out of shape. Resilience is a key element of success; you need to be able to get yourself up and keep going after a setback. For writers, setbacks often take the form of critical feedback that signals more work to do, more thinking, more writing. Sometime way more than we expected to have to do, or even want to do.

If you are an academic who has chosen a career that involves much writing and publishing, you accept that you will be knocked back but that you will have to keep moving. No journal article or book chapter is written in the first try – many drafts and revisions will need to be completed before it is ready to be read by your peers in a published form. But, for undergraduate students, this notion of writing and revising is not something familiar or even normal. Most assignments are written once, handed in, marked (sometimes with and sometimes without feedback or comments), and then moved on from. Few students have repeated opportunities to write a draft, have it read and commented on, and then make revisions to improve the paper.

The system of peer review, feedback, drafting and revision is not readily built into most undergraduate education, or even early postgraduate education, for example in a coursework or taught Masters programme. Perhaps this is why many students struggle to develop resilience against having their work or ideas critiqued, which should then prompt them to rethink, revise, and not feel defeated. A project I worked on several years ago built a first draft-revisions-final draft system into a course where students had previously had no opportunities to get feedback on an essay in progress. I thought most students would really like this system, but I found when I talked to them after the project that many had been frustrated and discouraged receiving feedback that meant they had more reading and writing to do, as they believed their essays were fine as they were. They didn’t want to make revisions; they wanted to give up and move on to something else.

I wondered, though, if this wasn’t a normal reaction from a first-year student encountering critical commentary on her work for the first time. Of course she would have that kind of reaction. Even experienced, published writers dread feedback as much as they appreciate the opportunities it affords them to improve their work. I further wondered if, given further drafting-feedback-revising opportunities in courses across the curriculum and thus made a normal part of undergraduate education, those students would have developed writer-resilience over time. Sure, the feedback may still have initially been upsetting or difficult to read, but with input from tutors and lecturers on how to use feedback to revise their work, these students may well have learned to get back up and keep writing, and would certainly have gained a great deal, both intellectually and emotionally, from that process.

resilience

I am aware that increasingly large classes, and linguistically and educationally diverse student bodies, make creating and sustaining writing intensive courses a challenge. But, some of this challenge stems less from the time it takes to read and comment on student work, and more from the nature of the curriculum being too full of things students need to learn and know and less with time for things students need to be able to do with what they know, such a problem-solving and argument-construction. I think this is an imbalance that may need to be corrected if we do take seriously helping our students to become more resilient thinkers and writers, an ability that will surely stand them in strong stead in further studies, and in the world of work.

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Argument: creating a coherent whole out of the parts of your essay

One of things many undergraduate students I have worked with over the years have always battled with is understanding the difference between an essay that makes an argument, and an essay that has useful information in it that is not tied together around a central thread or point. In my former role as the coordinator of a university writing centre, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to help students understand and address this struggle through writing workshops and tutorials, and in my work with their lecturers and tutors.

Getting your head around what an argument is, and how to craft and make substantive and coherent arguments, is key to succeeding at your higher education studies and beyond, and not just in the humanities and social sciences. Although they may do it in different ways and in different forms, all fields make and defend arguments for and against things: this design for a footbridge rather than that one for this community; this method for building a hydrology model rather than that one in this project site; this theory of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on modern society and not a different one; and so on.

From gigya.com

From gigya.com

The argument is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question you don’t want your readers to ask at the end of your essay. It is the ‘golden thread’ if you like, that takes the strands of your argument and pulls them into a defined shape to substantiate and develop the central claim your essay wants to make. This is often called ‘the thesis statement’. It needs to be clearly made, often in the introductory part of your writing, so that your reader knows what it is that is helping you to select and organise the parts of your essay or paper that will follow. What follows the introduction will be a connected selection of sub-claims, supported by relevant evidence, that further develop and substantiate the central claim, and all of these sub-claims must make up this golden thread – they need to connect, in a logical and coherent order, to create an argument that is persuasive and makes sense.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

You could think of these sub-claims, and the evidence you have selected from literature or empirical data, or both, as strands of coloured wool. On their own, side-by-side, they just make up a collection of strands of coloured wool. Without a purpose or aim to draw them together into a blanket or a scarf or similar, they are just pretty strands of wool. They need a knitter and the knitter needs a pattern to follow. In undergraduate and early postgraduate studies, where students are completing coursework, they are given their ‘knitting patterns’ in the form of task questions and instructions to respond to. Later on, in independent research, students need to design their own patterns, or research tasks.

Students, as the knitters, will read (or devise) the task, decide on what research needs to be done to generate the information needed to respond appropriately to the task, and using their prior learning as well as the thinking, reading and writing practice they have had thus far, they will ideally weave or knit the information together to create something new, that represents (hopefully in their own creative way) the pattern they were asked to follow. They will create new knowledge from existing knowledge, even in a small way, by taking a position on an issue and advancing a substantiated argument. Without the argument to tie the strands together into a pattern, the essay will likely end up looking a bit like the picture above – a collection of paragraphs, each with their own point, but together not quite managing to create something coherent or sensible. The essay may well leave the reader wondering: ‘So what? What is the point of all of this?’

A tool I recently learnt on a writing retreat has really helped me to create a define my own ‘pattern’ for my writing, and is helping me to make sure that I am actually knitting together arguments in my papers that make sense, and are properly substantiated. Taken from a book called The Craft of Research, the tool helps writers to plot out the golden thread by asking them to think carefully about the main claim, the sub-claims, the reasons for those claims, and the evidence needed to substantiate them. Claims and evidence are probably quite obvious – of course we need both of these elements to write a paper worth its salt. But what of reasons? According to the authors, reasons are important because they outline the logic of the argument you want to make. I have learned, using this tool, that I am quite good at generating many reasons for the research I want to write about, but I am less adept at pinning down my claims. This tool has been helping me to work on this.

This (below) is my version of the tool in action: an argument for a paper I am working on plotted out in my research journal on stickies. Following the retreat facilitator’s advice, I use stickies to avoid writing long-winded claims and reasons. This is not the plan for your paper, this is the plan for your argument, and you need to be able to identify and state your claims, reasons, and related evidence fairly concisely. If it takes you 7 or 8 stickies to state one claim, you have some more thinking and refining to do before you are ready to plot out your paper and knit your strands together.

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I start with my main claim, and then identify any sub-claims that are part of that. I then write out the reasons for the claims I am making, and follow with the evidence I either have, or need to have, to support these claims. The orange stickies at the end contain my ‘take-home message’ or the answer to the ‘So what?’ question (which will be part of my conclusion) as well as the limitations on the argument I want to make. Not every paper will include limitations, but all papers need to have claims, reasons, evidence, and a clear answer to the ‘So what?’ question. All papers we write, whether as undergrads, postgrads or professionals, need to have a point – and the point is the argument, and the way in which we are weaving that golden thread through the writing to create something new from all the strands of research, reading and thinking we have been doing.

From dreamstime.com

From dreamstime.com

If you are a writing teacher or tutor: consider using or adapting a tool like this to help students you work with understand the link between the research they are doing and the information they are gathering, and the ways in which this information and research need to be pulled together selectively around a central argument that knits all the paragraphs or parts together into a coherent, persuasive whole.

If you are a writer: try this tool out, and look for others that can help you to make clearer the ways in which your arguments are constructed and crafted, to ensure that your own writing is a clear, persuasive and makes as much sense as possible.

Reference: Booth, C., Colomb, G. and Williams, J. (Eds) 2003. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thinking about our writing from the perspective of our readers

The issue I want to reflect on in this post stems from some writing and rewriting I have been doing on a prospective journal article recently. A conversation with a good friend about the revisions I have needed to work on, following advice from peer reviewers, turned to an interesting question: how would I write the revised paper from the perspective or standpoint of my readers, and how would this improve my writing?

When I run writing workshops with students, I almost always start with ‘APC&E’: Audience, Purpose, Context, and Evaluation. I am not sure where this comes from – I was taught the APC part as an undergraduate student, and again as a tutor of undergraduate students several years later, and added the E a few years ago to account for the emergence of rubrics that students need to read and interpret before handing in a task for assessment (as opposed to only after if at all, as when I was s student). This is the best place to start, with any piece of writing, whether creative or academic, for a lecturer or tutor, or for a journal editor.APC&E

  • Audience: Who am I writing to? How much do they know about my topic? What kinds of considerations do I need to take into account in terms of the language I am using, or the terminology, or the theory (and so on)?
  • Purpose: Why am I writing this paper/article/thesis/report etc? What am I trying to achieve with this piece of writing? What are my main aims and claims?
  • Context: Is this piece of writing for a tutor? For a lecturer? For an editor? Is the context local (my class, my department, my university) or wider (national or international, general or specific)?

And, crucially:

  • Evaluation: How will my writing be assessed? What are the guidelines/criteria to which I am writing, and that I need to consider as I create this piece of work? What would the possible consequences be if I don’t write to the guidelines or criteria?

Considering the APC&E is something I think all writers, especially novice writers, should get into the habit of doing, as it can mitigate against making missteps and errors. For example, assuming too much (or too little) knowledge on the part of the reader, and writing too abstractly, or perhaps too pedantically. Or, being unable to communicate the purpose of your writing, and so confusing your reader with a poorly structured, meandering argument. Rather than just sitting down to write, to just get it done, students need to be encouraged (and initially guided) in considering the APC&E for each piece of writing. If this becomes a healthy writing habit, students can grow into more thoughtful and thorough writers, and they can begin to think about their writing not just from their own (narrow) perspective as its author, but from the potentially wider perspective of its readers, and what they could take from the writing in terms of knowledge, or provocation for new thinking.

Working with this notion of writing from the view of the reader needs to be encouraged through an adaptable tool like the APC&E because it doesn’t come naturally, and it isn’t necessarily commonsense. Most students have never been asked to think about these aspects of academic writing before they come to university, and if these habits don’t begin at undergraduate level, they are unlikely to become part of how students think through and create their written work as they progress through their studies. As an editor of two journals, and a peer reviewer, it is clear that not all authors do consider their readers when they write, and this is often clear in the kinds of feedback the articles receive from peer reviewers and editors.

My lack of consideration, or perhaps mistaken assumptions about, my readers was made clear to me in comments I received from three peer reviewers on the paper I am currently revising. Although they thought the paper was well-written, and considers an important topic, they essentially seemed to miss my overall purpose, and asked for revisions that indicated that too much of what I wanted to convey in the paper had not made it across the bridge between me as the author and them as the readers. I had not clarified my purpose, and further comments about revisions to the methodology and conceptual framework indicated to me that I had perhaps not fully or accurately considered the journal’s readership. Hence the conversation with my friend, stemming from me asking advice on how to address these comments in my revisions, and his advice to come at my writing as these three readers did, asking (and addressing) more critical questions about my assumptions regarding the audience and context, and my understanding of my purpose in writing the article.

This has not been easy to do. I really have no idea who will download and read my article; following Teresa Lillis (2001), I almost have to invent my readers in my head, and write to imagined rather than real people, which is challenging, and I am a fairly experienced writer, now. For undergraduate students, inventing their lecturers and tutors and trying to anticipate their feedback and reception of the writing is even more challenging, and often feels impossible. Thus, this tool needs to be adapted for writers working at different levels, and for different tasks: a first year student writing to a tutor will need to consider a different set of APC&E concerns than a PhD student writing to external examiners and a supervisor, for example. The PhD student may also need less, or different kinds of, guidance than the first year student new to writing at university, but guidance is key to working with the tool, and making this thinking process into a writing habit.

This is where tutoring and peer guidance comes in, and where a writing tutor or writing respondent can help: by being a critical friend and reader. Writing tutors within spaces like writing or learning centres can be students’ critical readers, and can help students to decipher ‘rubrics’ or writing guidelines, giving them a clearer sense of what their readers will be looking for, and what they can do to anticipate their readers’ reception of their writing. A tutor can’t tell a student what feedback they will get – feedback is not a uniform thing by any means – but they can work through the students’ APC&E, and create a space for reflection, thoughtfulness and a renewed, reader-centred approach to the piece of writing being worked on. All writers write for readers; thinking more carefully about who we are writing to, why and how, can help us as writers create a stronger bridge to our readers, ensuring clearer (and hopefully more accurate) reception of and engagement with the ideas and knowledge we are creating and sharing.

Teaching, learning, writing and ‘The Matrix’

From sandboxtactics.com

From sandboxtactics.com

I used the metaphor of The Matrix (from the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film) in a PhD blog post I wrote recently (here), and I have been thinking a bit more about how it can be used as a metaphor for becoming a more conscious writer and knower in higher education. Perhaps by unpacking this idea (and having a bit of fun with it) we can understand a little more about how to make what we are doing as teachers and expecting of students’ learning more open and visible for our students, and we can fill gaps and make connections more overtly.

For those who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a computer programmer/hacker, Thomas Anderson or Neo, is approached by a character called Morpheus who tells him that life is not it seems, and Neo is special. He has the power to change the world. Morpheus shows him a glimpse of this layer beneath the world he can see – there is a Matrix that we are all plugged into and most of us don’t even know it’s there. Knowing about it and seeing it can bring danger – powerful people don’t want us educated about the Matrix and our power to change it – but it can also bring freedom, choice. After this glimpse, Morpheus tells Neo he can choose – take the blue pill and he wakes up tomorrow and nothing is different. Take the red pill and he goes on a journey towards consciousness, learning, emancipation. Neo chooses the red pill and with Morpheus as his mentor off he goes, eventually learning how to see the inner workings of the Matrix and change the world he lives in, and by extension, himself and those around him. His is a journey of transformation. There is way more to the story, but this is enough for you to follow my thinking here.

I’ve been playing with the idea of higher education teaching, learning (and writing) being like a Matrix. The students are the Neos,  with potential and talent that needs to be recognised, brought out and nurtured. They have the power to change the world but they often don’t know how to. Peer tutors and colleagues students engage with are like the crew on the Nebuchadnezzar (the ship they all live on): Trinity, Tank, Dozer, who support, teach, and challenge Neo on his journey. Lecturers can probably be more like Morpheus – a little older, more experienced and knowledgeable, ideally mentors and teachers. When students enter university, they often know that the world is bigger than they think it is, and that there are many more things out there for them to know and do and see and be. They come to us to be taught and to learn because they want access to this wider world of possibilities; they want to be transformed and changed and have opportunities to live bigger, more exciting and often more comfortable lives. I have worked with many students over the years, and most of them really do want the red pill rather than the blue one, even if they can’t phrase their desires in these terms, and even though they have very little sense of how much hard work and dedication it will take and that it’s a lifelong process of learning. I think part of our job as the Trinitys or Morpheuses in their journey is to build into learning and teaching more of a sense of what the Matrix is all about and what they can and should be doing to be learning about how to see it, understand it and eventually change it. Our assessments, teaching approaches, student activities, writing tasks etc all need to be pulling students towards not just knowing what’s out there on the surface, but more importantly the principled knowledges and ways of knowing that underpin, give rise to, shape what we see on the surface. In other words, we need to be teaching not just what we can know, but why we need to know it, and how we would/could know it and what we could do with it.

Writing is one way of getting deeper into the Matrix, because writing is one of the main ways in which we ask students to show us their knowledge and understanding. Becoming a more conscious and powerful writer is a bit like going on a Neo-like journey. We start off being shown (or told) to write in quite formulaic ways. These are the three steps of an introduction; this is a topic sentence; a conclusion does these three things, and so on. Undergraduate students often see these ‘formulae’ in quite basic, surface ways because this is often how they are taught. They can struggle, often, to become more creative writers because the formulae feel safer. The whys and hows are there, of course, but for many students they are often tacit or hidden. One of the ways in which we become more conscious writers, who make choices about how we write because we understand what the requirements are and why they are so, is by learning precisely these things: the criteria, what they mean and why they are there. As we go, through feedback (from Morpheus-like mentors), reflection (on our own and with peers) and more writing, we can begin to see the Matrix and eventually, write the code ourselves.

From dan-dare.org

From dan-dare.org

If we can understand not just that there is a Matrix (and this is what it is, and what we must do if we want to live in it), but also begin to see the hidden code that makes up the Matrix, and possibly change it and ourselves to act and think differently, we can truly be transformed by learning, and by studying at university. I think we can more readily achieve ‘graduate attribute’ type goals with our students – for example, graduating civic-minded and active citizens who are aware of and have the tools to change their environment and society – by orienting them (and ourselves) towards making visible the systems of meaning* that we are hoping students will engage with. We can more readily show students how to become lifelong and ongoing learners, and we can equip them with tools – principled and applied knowledges – that make them able to not just see the Matrix (whether at university or in the world around them) but also able to change it. If we can shift our focus from the ‘stuffed’ curriculum** full of ‘content and skills’ by beginning to understanding who our graduates in particular disciplines need to be and what they need to know and do, and connecting this to the kinds of teaching we do and the kinds of tasks, assessment etc that we ask students to engage in, we can begin to work within systems of meaning and knowing  more consciously and overtly.  I’m thinking that this might be a way of getting to the heart of higher education and its transformative potential and purpose. It’s not easy to get into the Matrix and make the changes, but it most certainly is possible.

* Wheelahan, L. 2013. Keynote address. Rhodes University, Department of Education PhD conference, October 2013.

** Cousin, G. 2006. ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet, 17: 4-5.

Making time to write

Apologies, readers. We have been terrible about keeping this blog up to date lately. Our excuse is one many writers know well: we just have not had the time! But, here’s the thing. That’s not completely true. We have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish at least three blogposts. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.

When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.

Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many students may also struggle, especially as undergraduates, because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to a piece of writing to be published or submitted somewhere for evaluation. They may find physical time, but may then discover that it’s not enough, and that they are too rushed. But if they have a deadline they will hand something in, even if it is not the something we would like to read and assess; even if it is rough, or does not fully address the questions asked and so on. So students also need to work out the difference between physical time and writing time.

You see, I know now, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done. I would maybe be able to read a couple of short articles and make some notes on them. But when I was an undergraduate, an hour seemed like enough time to get a draft of my essay scribbled out – it was only 1200 words after all and I’d been listening in class. I didn’t know then about all the reading required, and the thinking and the referencing and the editing and proofing that need to be factored in as well. So, of course, I would leave the essay until a couple of days or less before the due date, read the course readings cursorily and then write out my essay in a hurry. Too late I would realise that I had not given myself enough time to do the task justice, but it took me a long time to learn what went into all that writing and therefore how much physical time I needed to make for my writing. It took me a long time to make my writing important.

This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.

A final point for lecturers and tutors: when you set tasks, make time in class or tutorials not only to explain the task and your expectations to students, but also to workshop with them if possible, or at least to show them, the things that go into writing an assignment like the one you have set them. What will they need to make time for? Reading? Fieldwork? Drafting and revisions? Proofreading? Getting advice from a writing tutor? Doing an experiment and collating results? Be careful of assuming that students, even postgraduate students, know how to spend their writing time or know what has to go into it. Teach them how to make time for writing when you teach them how to write in your discipline – this practical lesson is a valuable one.

 

Making transitions when writing in new media

I have been procrastinating about some revisions I need to do recently on my own PhD thesis and also on a paper I have been writing with colleagues. One of the forms this procrastination has taken is looking back at some of the early posts on this blog. I was struck by how formal they are – so ‘academic’ in tone and style. The later posts are different, more humorous in some ways, and also more relaxed; more like what I now think blog posts on this kind of blog should be – conversation-starters or think-pieces there to stimulate discussion and thinking and conversation in a more relaxed or informal way. They should be engaging – of the writer and the reader, and be fun to write and read. Well, this is my opinion of them anyway.

But I got to thinking, ‘what changed? Between now and then, why did my style shift so?’ There is also a bigger question here about transitions writers make in their own processes of growth and learning, and how and why these transitions happen. We in writing centres are, I think, quite focused on these transitional moves, because part of our work is to enable them to take place and also to make student-writers more aware of the need for change and transition and growth and how to achieve this.

In my own blog-writing I think my learning has been quite tacit. As I got more comfortable with the blogsphere, and as I started subscribing to and reading other blogs, I started to learn about what I liked to read, what kinds of tones and styles were used in blogs that I identified as being like my own, and I began to play with this genre a little more boldly, although I didn’t try things out very consciously – rather I just began to write a little less formally, and with a little less planning and careful thought. I tried to just let the ideas come, and then edited and organised retrospectively. If I think back, I cannot pin-point this strategy or that which worked, although I could show you posts I liked writing more, and less, and probably the ones I liked more were funnier and more fun to write, and also more personal and about my own writing and how my learning is carried into my conversations with students and tutors. They felt more like the kinds of texts that tend to count as relevant or authentic in the blogspheres I think they fit into.

So, I suppose I have to ask myself, now, ‘what learning from this experience of changing my own writing style in my blog can I take into my tutoring of students and writing tutors?’ You may say that this is an easier space to play within than perhaps a university course where the assessment of the students’ writing is high stakes. After all, no one is marking my blog posts out of 100 or judging the posts to pass or fail against some preset criteria. However low-stakes this space may be in terms of the formal understandings of assessment of writing in higher education, it is not all that low-stakes for me. I am putting my ideas out into a very public space, sharing them with many people I cannot meet or see, who do not actually know me the way a lecturer might, or be able to give the benefit of any kind of doubt. This has made me feel quite vulnerable, and open to possible critique and misreading. While I know, as an academic, that critique is good if it can help me grow and learn, it is not always easy to hear. So each post feels a bit like an act of bravery, and each post is another step in my learning process about writing in this space, in this medium.

I think that each essay and assignment must feel to many students like an act of bravery, as they open their work and their selves expressed in their work up to critique and correction. Students also need to learn to write well in new media and new genres, and often the rules and conventions of these genres are not explained or opened up for discussion and deconstruction in lectures or tutorials. Many lecturers assume that students can work these rules and conventions out on their own, and struggle to see the tacit-ness of their own learning and growth as writers. If they could see this, as I can try to see my own tacit learning and growth, then they could start working with student writers from a place of empathy, because writing in new media and new voices is risky and does feel vulnerable, and support and feedback is needed. They could also begin, as I have tried to do with my tutors, to explain their own processes of learning, making the rules and conventions that govern what counts as the right tone or style or voice in these different media more explicit and easy to see, understand and also challenge where necessary.

Writing never stops being work, and even when we stay with one or two media we are comfortable with as writers we still need to make transitions and change and grow in order for our writing to remain engaging, current, relevant to our audiences. But it doesn’t always have to be painful, unpleasant work. I think that reflecting on our own journeys as writers, trying to pull out and explain our own transitions and what enabled them or made them happen could be a useful and creative starting place when we approach working with student writers who need our feedback and guidance.

Giving feedback that encourages engagement with writing and thinking

Image from Linchi Kwok’s blog

We have posted on this blog about feedback this year already, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what counts as useful feedback and what kinds of feedback constrain rather than enable a writer’s further engagement with their own writing. So, I thought a less ‘academic’ take on feedback might be useful.

I am a student, too, as readers of this blog will know, so I am currently getting and reading and working with a lot of feedback from my supervisor, and while some of the comments are tough because of all the extra thinking they ask me to do, all of them are actually helpful. But more than that, they encourage me to go deeper in terms of my engagement with and thinking about my own writing. They ask me to rethink things I have written; to question connections between parts of the text that I may have said are there but are not clear to the reader; to make links clearer and to edit out repetitive or vague comments that add little to my text or make it less coherent. They ask me to think, and to question and to challenge myself as a writer to grow and learn from errors and missteps. This kind of feedback, I think, is ideal. Writers only become more capable and more confident as they write, and they need to know what their readers think, and where the writing makes sense and where it does not. Further, if there are errors and missteps they need advice on how to correct these and get the writing onto the right path.

Feedback, then, needs to do two things: encourage further engagement between the writer and their writing, and offer useful advice on how to make that engagement constructive. Feedback that just tells you things are wrong, or vague or irrelevant is at best unhelpful and at worst demotivating, especially when no advice is given on what you could do differently to meet the reader or marker’s standards. It discourages students from doing more thinking, and reading and writing. It constrains further learning and growth. But this constructive, helpful and engaging feedback is not easy to give, and it can take time. It requires the reader to read carefully, and to step into the role of a critical friend, rather than just an assessor. The reader needs to think about what the writer has tried to achieve, and comment both on what has worked well, and also what has not. Rather than simply pointing out mistakes the reader needs to engage the writer, asking questions that will guide their thinking (‘could this paragraph make more sense if it came before the previous one rather than after? Think about the ideas you are linking together here’). The reader needs to offer advice that gives the writer choices (‘I would cut this section out because you have made this point already in the first part of the chapter. Maybe you could blend the best pieces of each section together to make one strong section earlier on’). The reader needs to encourage the writer realistically, so that hey know where they are in terms of the standards set and also what they still need to do to reach them (‘This is a good start, and the introduction and conclusion are well-written. However, parts of your argument are not well supported by evidence from the readings, so you will need to revise these, supporting your claims with relevant information where needed’).

The reality, often, is that when we hand in a piece of work we really want to be finished with it because we always have something else to move on to. Feedback, however, and the revisions that it asks for, are a necessary part of writing, whether you are writing an essay, a thesis or a novel. Mediating feedback by talking to students about it and explaining your own thinking as their reader is one way of foregrounding the role feedback plays in the writing process, and the fact that writing is a process and not just a product. Making time and finding creative ways of giving this kind of feedback can pay dividends in getting students, slowly, to learn how to read feedback, think about it and revise their writing. There are many different ‘tools’ you can use, like getting students to work out assignment criteria with you and give guided peer feedback, or getting students to submit essays on Google Drive and doing oral feedback as you read their essays. Whatever the tool, and however much feedback you give or however often, a guiding principle should be that it gets the writer to a next step in their writing process, and facilitates their own further engagement with their writing.